118 Years Ago At Rameswaram
On his way back to India, Swami Vivekananda liked the sea voyage, meditating and relaxing from his strenuous activities in the West. After attending the Chicago Religious Parliament, he had a hectic schedule for four long years in the USA and Europe. In the early morning of January 15, 1897, the coast of Ceylon with its majestic Coco palms and golden hued beach was seen at a distance. The Swami’s heart leapt with joy and his disciples caught his excitement as he approached the beautiful harbour of Colombo.
A gaily decorated Steamer carried the Swami and his party from the Ship to the Colombo harbour. When the monk with his yellow robe and luminous eyes came ashore, a mighty sound arose from the people crowding the quays. Thousands flung themselves on the ground to touch his feet. A deputation of the notables of Ceylon welcomed him, and he was taken in a huge procession through many triumphal arches. Flags were unfurled, religious hymns chanted, bands played to welcome him.
When the news of Swami Vivekananda departure from Europe reached India, the hearts of the people were stirred. In big towns committees were formed for his reception. His disciples and followers were eager to welcome him. Swami Shivananda came ahead of time to Madras and Swami Niranjanananda to Colombo, so also many of his disciples from different parts of India came to Madras to await his arrival.
Swami Vivekananda’s progress from Colombo to Madras and the welcome he received at Kandy, Anuradhapuram, Jaffna, Pamban, Rameswaram, Ramnad, Paramakkudi, Madurai, Trichinapaly, and Kumbakonam demonstrated how deeply he had endeared himself to the men and women. At Rameswaram the city deeply attached to Lord Shiva, the Swami had delivered an unlikely address. He exhorted the people to: “Worship Shiva in the poor, the diseased, and the weak”.
At Rameswaram, he received a touching welcome there from the Raja of Ramnad, Bhaskara Sethupathy who was his disciple, and who had encouraged him to go to America and also helped materially for that purpose. At Ramnad the horses were unhitched from the carriage bearing the Swami, and the people themselves, the Raja among them, drew it. At Rameswaram the Raja erected, in the Swami’s honour, a victory column forty feet high with a suitable inscription. He also gave a big donation to the Madras Famine-Relief Fund to commemorate the home-coming of the Swami.
After delivering the historic speech to the global community glorifying India and the high points of its centuries old culture and civilisation and finishing up his four-year overseas tour , Swamiji set his foot in India at Rameswaram, on the Pamban island, on January 26, 1897.
Beginning the year of his 150th birth anniversary, the local Vivekananda Kendra had inaugurated the renovation and revival of Teerthams of the island of Rameswaram on January 27th 2013. It was the day of arrival of Swami Vivekananda to Rameswaram in 1897. Also the entire city of Rameswaram has several dedicated active institutions and voluntary organisations named after Swami Vivekananda. Earlier Holy mother Sarada Devi came here to worship. Guru Govind Singh have come here and meditated. There is a historical Sikh Gududwara in Rameswaram. Chatrapathi Shivaji came here and made offerings. Guru Matsyendranath, the hatha yoga founder also came here. Maharishi Patanjali’s Samadhi is inside the Sanctum the Ramanatha Swamy temple.
The Pamban Bridge
Rameswaram is one of the most sacred sites for the Hindus. This is where the legend of Lord Rama was enacted! Where Rama built a Sethu or bridge with the help of his Vanara army, to cross the sea and go to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita, fighting the Demon King Ravana. The Ramayana attributes the building of this bridge to Rama in verse Yuddha Kandam, 2-22-76, naming it as Setubandhanam.
In fact, Rameswaram is the closest point to reach Sri Lanka and geological evidence suggests that the Rama Sethu was a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. Adam’s Bridge or Ram Sethu is perceived as the chain of limestone shoals, between Pamban Island, also known as Rameswaram Island, off the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India, and Mannar Island, off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka.
Geological evidence suggests that this bridge is a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. Indian Archaeological wing ASI had said that there is no viable proof of any manmade link, however! NASA satellite photograph in recent years was claimed as the remains of such an ancient bridge by some interpreters. But NASA explained that what had been captured was a 30-km-long chain of sandbanks, a natural formation.
Geographically speaking, Rameswaram is a town and a municipality in the Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu, located on Pamban Island and separated from mainland India by the Pamban channel. Traditionally it was a transit point to Sri Lanka (Ceylon then), at around 50 kilometres from Mannar Island, the nearest point in Sri Lanka.
Just at the entrance of Rameswaram Island is the Pamban Bridge. If anyone wants to reach Rameswaram Island, he/she has to pass through this landmark cantilever bridge. Pamban Island, which is generally known as Rameswaram Island, is connected to mainland India by this century old Pamban Bridge, one of the longest in India. It was India’s first and one of its kinds of Sea Bridge which was constructed in 1914. The phenomenal activity of this bridge is the “raise through” which allow ships to pass. The British planned and built bridge had celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
The Pamban Road Bridge and the Railway Bridge are those massive structures over the sea, parallel to each other between the shores of Mandapam and Pamban. Popularly the name “Pamban Bridge” refers both of them. It is in fact the name of the Pamban Railway Bridge.
Geologists have said that , most possibly up to the first quarter of the fifteenth century Mandapam and Pamban were connected by a slender strip of land. A massive cyclone in 15th century resulted in the submergence of that connecting stripe of land between Mandapam and Pamban. After that, boat service was the only mode of transport to reach the land of Rameswaram.
The idea of building a bridge across Pamban Channel (the Palk Strait) at the Tip of Indian Peninsula was proposed in the 1870’s by British engineers and planners to enhance trade with Ceylon. The Construction of Pamban Bridge was completed on 24 February, 1914. The bridge having a length of 6,776 ft, (2,065 meters) and has 143 piers. There is a double leaf bascule at the centre. Scherzer, a German engineer was involved in its design.
On December 23, 1964 the notorious Super Cyclonic struck the Pamban Bridge with the velocity of 240 km/hour after it swept off the entire Dhanuskodi Island and overturned the Pamban-Dhanuskodi Passenger Train, killing 150 passengers. The once famous ‘Boat Mail’ used to run on this track between 1915 and 1964 from Madras (Egmore) to Dhanuskodi, from where the passengers were ferried to Talaimannar in Ceylon. The metre-gauge branch line from Pamban Junction to Dhanuskodi was abandoned after it was destroyed by the 1964 Dhanuskodi cyclone.
A major Part of the Pamban Bridge was damaged due to the catastrophe. The Indian Railway Engineers came up with a contingency plan of 6 months to restore it but the Engineers were able to complete their job in less than two months! The leader of the team was I.E.S Officer E.Sreedharan, the man credited in later years for the projects like Konkan Rail and Delhi Metro.
The adjacent road bridge was opened in the year 1988. The Railway Bridge was later upgraded to broad gauge rail tracks in August 2007. In its centenary year, it acquired UNESCO’s heritage status.
A City By The Sea
Like Somnath, another city related with the holy Jyotirlinga, the one thing that will catch you when you reach Rameswaram, is the smell of fish in the air. But the magnificence of the Sea, picturesque Beaches, the religious fervour of this pan Indian pilgrimage town, the simplicity and the warmness of the local people will quickly make you fall in love with the town, in the Gulf of Mannar, at the very tip of the Indian peninsula.
Sea is the prominent source of livelihood for the people of Rameswaram. Most of them are fishermen or they sell sea products like fishes, crabs, conch shells etc. And many are engaged in shell artefact making too. There is a saying known around Rameswaram which says, “In the island of Rameswaram people never plough the fields or use oil-presses to get oil”.
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the Rameswaram born former President wrote in his autobiography: “Living on the island of Rameswaram while I was growing up, the sea was an important part of our lives. Its tides, the lapping of the waves, the sound of trains passing on the Pamban bridge, the birds that always circled the town and the salt in the air are sights and sounds that will always remain linked with my memories of childhood. Apart from its sheer presence around us, the sea was also a source of livelihood for our neighbours and us. Almost every household had some connection with the sea, whether as fishermen or as boat owners”.
Rameswaram has a dry tropical climate with low humidity. The soil of Rameswaram is not suitable for developed agriculture. However in some lands around the island people cultivate vegetables in small quantity. Coconut and palm trees are the main vegetation of this island. Making Palm leaf baskets, products made of coconut fibres, bags made out of coconut and palm coir are occupation of many Rameswaram residents.
Rameswaram is an industrially backward town. There has been no demarcation for industrial land due to the pilgrim sanctity and ecological fragile geography. Sea food processing, sea shell crafting and hospitality industry are the only industries run in Rameswaram.
In Rameswaram, the conch shell industry is now booming, with overwhelming orders from temples all over India and from the Hindu temples abroad. Here, within the smell of dead or rotting seashells, acid and polishing chemicals, mostly the Muslim families make a living, collecting, acid-washing and polishing conches and then supplying them to Hindu temples Indiawide.
It’s a laborious and specialised job. The scouring for conches, cleaning, polishing, painting and designing is a predominantly labour-intensive process which Hindus generally avoid in this town, due to their reluctance to handle the dead mollusc within the shells.Nearly 3,000 families in Rameswaram are engaged in this cottage industry, are assured by the regular income in a poverty stricken region mostly dependent on hazardous , fluctuating and unpredictable occupation of fishing.
Many fishermen here also look out for conches on the seabed and to sell them to the agents in the local market. Many others just dive into the sea for the catch. But these are poor people without any scuba diving apps or training. They go into the perilous sea just holding their breath longer! The rare left hand-side conchs fetch more money, as they are considered auspicious.
Shell Jewellery and artefacts made from sea shells is one of the oldest trades in this seaside town. A few families had started exporting the shell artefacts and conches. While about 60% of local trade consists of sale of conches, the rest is from handicrafts and jewellery made of shells. There is a popular shop within the premises of deceased President, Abdul Kalam’s ancestral house. It is run by one of his distant relatives.
A Town Etched In History
The history of Rameswaram is centred on the island being a transit point to reach Sri Lanka (Sinhala or later day Ceylon) and the presence of Ramanathaswamy Temple.
Legend has it that Rameswaram was the place from where Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu, had built a bridge to Lanka, with the help of Nala, the son of Viswakarma, the celestial Engineer, assisted by Rama’s monkey brigade, to rescue his captivated wife Sita from the captivity of Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. The famed Ramanathaswamy Temple is located in the centre of the town and dedicated to Lord Rama.
Rameswaram was also the place where Lord Rama had to atone for his sins. He had to seek penance after having killed the Brahmin king, Ravana. Rama asked Hanuman to bring the Shiva Lingam from the Himalayas for worship. This took time and Sita constructed a Shiva lingam out of sand here.
Rameswaram then: Not crowded and unspoilt
So this place is sacred both for the Vaishnavites as well as the Shaivites and the Smartas. It is one of the 275 Paadal Petra Sthalams, and one of 12 Jyotirlingas, where the three of the most revered Nayanars (Saivite saints), Appar, Sundarar and Tirugnana Sambandar, had glorified the temple with Tamil compositions in the 7th–8th century.
The legendary Chola King Rajendra Chola I (1012 – 1040 CE) had a control of the town for some time. During the early 15th century, the present day Ramanathapuram, Kamuthi and Rameswaram were included in the Pandyan dynasty. The RamanathaswamyTemple here was expanded during the 12th century by the Pandyan Dynasty.
Malik Kafur, the chief General of Alauddin Khilji, the ruler of Delhi Sultanate, reached Rameswaram during his political campaign in spite of stiff resistance from the Pandyan princes in the early 14th century. This was the first non Hindu invasion in Rameswaram.
In 1520, the town came under the rule of Vijayanagara Empire. The Jaffna Kingdom claimed control of the town and the royal dynasty of Jaffna called themselves Setukavalan or the custodians of Rameswaram.
The Arcot Nawab and Muhammad Yusuf Khan ruled the place in the middle of 18th century. In the tear 1795, Rameswaram came under the control of the British East India Company and was annexed to the Madras Presidency. After 1947, the island town became a part of Independent India and a part of Tamil Nadu State.
Purification By Baths
Goswami Tulsidas wrote in ‘Ramcharitmanas’:
“Je rameshwar darshan kari hahi |
Te tanu taji mam loka sidaari hahi “||
(Whoever goes to Rameshwaram and seeks God Shiva’s blessings, shalt always reside in the Shivloka.)
In ancient texts the town has been mentioned significantly. Many Puranas, the Agneya, Bhagavata, Padma, Shiva, Narada and Skanda Puranas mentioned the importance of pilgrimage to Rameswaram.
A small counter at the Ramanathaswamy Temple doorway offers necessary assistance and services for pilgrims who are interested in taking the 22 ritual baths in the temple kundas or the wells, known as Teerthams. The number 22, it is said owes its origin to the arrows in Ram’s quiver. Wherever it had touched, there sprang up a kunda!
One has to follow the temple assistant from well to well, beginning from Mahalakshmi, followed by Gayatri, Savitri, Saraswati, Gavya, Gavyaksha, Nala, Neela, Sethumadhava, Gandhamadhava, Brahmahatya Vimochana, Shanku, Surya, Chandra, Chakra, Shiva, Sarva, Satyamrita, Gaya, Ganga, Yamuna and finally Kodi which is supposedly equivalent to a dip in the holy Ganges.
Each one of them has an anecdote attached to it, somehow associated with the epic Ramayana or the scriptures, and related to atonement, Karma cleansing, pleasing the forefathers or attaining Moksha! Here, the wells follow in no logical sequence. Some are closer, others too far. Some are round, while others are square. Some are like nondescript village wells while another turns out to be the giant temple tank, 1000 square ft. or more in area and full of blooming water lilies. Whatever your status of mind, you experience the lightness of the soul as all your misdeeds, misdemeanours, guilt and felonies fall away. The pure magical power of purification in a different space and time rush forth your mind and body!
Agni Teertham is one of the most visited Teerthams of Rameswaram for a holy bath. Situated near the beach, east of Ramanathaswami Temple, it appears like a huge lake with brackish waters and black clayish sand below. People offer prayers to their ancestors , also the childless couples ask forgiveness to their ancestors for progenies here.
Pilgrims take baths in their unique ways, some chant loudly while taking bath, some whisper their wishes while bathing, some close their eyes out of sheer reverence and some urban people want just to soak in the experience of taking bath into the sea! Some take a fistful of clay in their hand and moulding into a Lingam, offer it back into the sea, with a nippy prayer. Some leave behind their discarded clothes to wash out all sins!
It’s one of India’s most desired pilgrimage destinations, on a par with Varanasi in the North. It is said that a pilgrimage to Varanasi will not be fruitful if one does not take the journey to Rameswaram. For Vaishnavites it is one of the four main holy destinations, called Char Dhams, alongwith Badrinath in the North, Puri in the East and Dwaraka in the West. It is equally revered by the Shaivites because here Lord Rama worshipped the supreme Deity-Rameswara, “Rama’s Lord”, the supreme God Shiva.
The long and ardous process of absolving ones bad Karma and misdeeds at this Kundas, is an experience which is unique and nowhere else than Rameswaram, one can feel and know it!
A German professor who has been coming to India for many years now and visiting Himalayas and Beneras in search of divinity in Indian ways, said that, earlier he used to avoid the ritual baths and visited the place as a tourist only. But now, he is a part of all the ritual baths and feels solace…it might be the Shiva’s magic!
“Every time I approach a well, all of my emotions and memories come up to the brim. I could physically feel them, pent up inside me. But once that water gets poured on me, the bad memories, the malafide thoughts everything goes away and melts into nothing, and I couldn’t even recall that what I was upset for!”
Anthropologist, historian and writer Steven Huyler wrote in his book “Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion” that: “Relationships with the Divine in India are believed to be reciprocal. Health and good fortune are the natural products of a symbiotic relationship with the Gods. …Occasionally a devotee might be required to conduct intense rituals to demonstrate devotion and to reestablish the Karmic equilibrium. In this process, miracles are viewed as common occurrences, blessings bestowed by the Gods upon faithful devotees.”
A Ceaseless Journey!
Following Lord Rama’s footprint, pilgrims are coming to this remote fishing village since ages. The Kings, the Satraps, the Gurus, the mendicants, the travellers, the urban quasi believers and the rural folks from the remotest parts of India, all visited Rameswaram over all these years and will continue to visit in the future, in quest of solace and purity. This place is a unique experience for everyone, depending on his or her quest.
Not just the temples and holy baths. It’s beyond that. Today there is a Spa, at the new Daiwik Hotel, so are the beauty parlours and popular bars like ‘Distil’, ‘Bike and Barrel’, the Disco Bar, ‘Flame Le Club’ at Royal Meridian Hotel, ‘Zara’s’ Bar for the local rich and the elites, or ‘Pasha’s’ with its popular Disc Jockeys…but you still found those poor mendicants crowded around seashore places like the vicinity of Ramalingeshwara and Mahamariamman temples, seeking alms for the pilgrims. Priests busy in chanting mantras , guiding the devotees at bathing Teerthams, the roaming and relaxing cows at every corner, yellow top auto rickshaws for ready rides, as well as the umpteen shell artefact sellers and the busy flower sellers, sea faring fishermen and prawn packers all are the part of this unique seaside town.
I have visited Kashi and walked through all its lanes and bi lanes, visited the Manikarnika and Assi Ghat, over all these years, but perhaps, as the scriptures say, the experience was not even complete, without a sojourn in Rameswaram!
By Deep Basu
Images by author